Friday, February 28, 2014

Five best Oscar winning songs ever

Academy Awards for original music in film is often an afterthought during mainstream “who will win” discussion panels and office Oscar polls. But for soundtrack fans it is one the great highlights of the Oscar telecast.
As far as this year’s nominated scores are concerned, it is not even close. There is John Williams and then there is everyone else. Of course, as has been the case for the past twenty years, he will not win. It certainly does not help that “The Book Thief” opened to dismal reviews and non-existent box-office. It is an utter joke and an insult to film music fans that the second best score of the year was not even nominated, Howard Shore’s masterful work for “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”.
“For the First Time in Forever” from “Frozen”—a magnificent, moving, magical song—an utter soaring, sonic delight reminiscent of the best of Alan Menkin—is my choice for Best Original Song from 2013. Unfortunately the deaf ears at the Academy failed to nominate this criminally overlooked musical gem. So out of the nominated songs my choice is another song from “Frozen”, “Let It Go”. But “Ordinary Love” by U2 will win and I can live with that. It is a fine song with a wonderful story behind it.
Here is a look back at my top five Oscar winning songs of all time.

“Beauty and the Beast” (1991) from “Beauty and the Beast”
Music by Alan Menken 
Lyrics: Howard Ashman
The composer/lyricist team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman revitalized animation, the movie musical, and Walt Disney Studios with the back to back sensations of “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and “Beauty and the Beast” (1991). Alan Menken may go down as the greatest composer of movie songs of all time and this emotional masterwork is one of his best.

“Falling Slowly” (2007) from “Once”
Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Both this song the critically acclaimed independent film came out of nowhere in 2007, gaining momentum from word of mouth and raves from everyone including Steven Spielberg. This is a beautiful, pitch perfect ballad. Even though my own preference that year would have been Alan Menken’s “So Close” from “Enchanted”, “Falling Slowly” is one of the best movie songs of the past decade.

“Take My Breath Away” (1986) from “Top Gun”
Music by Giorgio Moroder
Lyrics: Tom Whitlock
“Top Gun” has dated badly—but in a really good, kitschy kind of way. It almost plays today like a Zucker/Abrams/Zucker parody. But the trademark song from its popular soundtrack is as captivating as it was when it dominated Top 40 radio airplay back in 1986. There is a spooky quality to the music by pop synthesizer maestro Giorgio Moroder. Terry Nunn of Berlin provides a haunting vocal.

“Born Free” (1966) from “Born Free”
Music by John Barry
Lyrics by Don Black
John Barry wrote gorgeous music drenched with emotion. This beautiful and deeply moving film and the classic song are instant tearjerkers.

“Let the River Run” (1988) from “Working Girl”
Music and lyrics by Carly Simon
This catchy, feel good Oscar winning song perfectly captures the essence of this “Cinderella” meets “Wall Street” story. Both the film and Melanie Griffith were nominated as well. Great use of the song in the closing scene and final credits.

Monday, February 17, 2014

I'd buy that for a dollar

Robocop reboot an entertaining downgrade

As Baby’s father said to Johnny near the finale of “Dirty Dancing”—“When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.”
The “Robocop” remake is not the soulless disaster I feared it could have been. The filmmakers tried. They really did, and in the process have created an entertaining superhero movie along the lines of what Marvel is doing these days. But still, there was an opening to make something better here—something that flirted with the greatness of the 1987 masterpiece it seeks to emulate. This is a good movie that could have been so much better.

A little bit of film history; the original 1987 “Robocop” is an irreverent, savage satire of the culture of corporate imperialism, raging greed, and privatization run amuck that was in vogue at the time(and is now the norm). It was also a clever critique of American machismo. But the brilliance of the original “Robocop” was that it did it all effortlessly while at the same time delivering an absolute riveting, knockout, adrenaline-fueled, testosterone stoked, kick-ass, imaginative science fiction action flick full of rousing sequences that have become imbedded into the fabric of pop culture.
Now to expect the new “Robocop” to do all of the above is unrealistic. Genre films today are saddled with PG-13 ratings. You could not make the original “Robocop”, “Total Recall”, or even “Terminator” today. Movies today have lots of violence but it is sanitized, which is worse, because it shows no consequences. Blockbusters do not make social and political commentary today, and when they do (as in the case of “The Dark Knight” or “Elysium”) there is outrage. But the shortcoming of this new version is not the lack of scathing satire or gore, it is in the narrative and in the execution of the action.
Director José Padilha abides by the tiresome shoot all action sequences up close with shaky cam and then over edit school of directing. When the camera isn’t shaking the action reverts to a dull video game sensibility. Compare this to the brilliant visual style used by Neill Blomkamp in “Elysium” and you will see (and feel) the difference. That being said, there are two or three moments in the movie that were begging for Padilha to put Robocop into action and pump up the classic Basil Poledouris theme music—and the scene just stopped. One of the missing ingredients of this movie is music. If there was a score, I sure never heard it and the film needed a great one to make it all work.

Now on to the good and there is a lot of good in this movie too starting with the performances.
Gary Oldman is fantastic. This is, in many ways, his movie. The veteran actor and consummate pro has once again delivered a big time performance and elevates the movie to a whole new level. His character feels real and the emotional arc is believable and resonates. Michael Keaton may not be as overtly sinister as heavy Ronny Cox but he puts a nice contemporary twist on the villain, giving the character a Steve Jobs gone to the dark side vibe. Jack Earle Haley oozes evil as his henchman enforcer and provides the reboot’s answer to Curtwood Smith.
One bit of wicked satire this remake does have is in the form of a Glenn Beck/Bill O’Reilly type TV talk show host played with hilarious verve by the great Samuel L. Jackson. Truly wonderful stuff!

He may not have Peter Weller’s unique persona and distinct charisma, but Joel Kinnaman is terrific as the title character. And one area where the movie does improve on the original is with the family story. Murphy’s wife is given a much needed expanded role here and Abbie Cornish makes the most of it. The movie comes to life every time she is on the screen and next to Oldman, she has the best performance in the film.
Bottom line: Although it lacks the bite of the original and could have used more action, the new ‘Robocop” is an entertaining superhero film featuring a great performance by Gary Oldman.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Caitlin Star timeline

Here are the some of the key events taking place in the “Caitlin Star” universe.

1983 – A mysterious muscle-bound vigilante makes his first appearance defending a homeless man against a gang of bullies.  It is the first documented appearance of the man known as “Gunner Star”.

1985 – Gunner Star takes on his first protégé, a stock trader genius named Zahn. Gunner teaches him the “Bull Mongoni philosophy”, a credo of beliefs based on the teachings of a mythic race of hominids who vanished long ago.

1985 – 1990 – Gunner and Zahn become the Batman and Robin of Pittsburgh. They operate out of the shadows dispensing social justice and defending those who have no voice or power to fight back.

1990 – Zahn becomes increasingly aggressive and fanatical, wanting to go beyond the mission parameters of enacting vigilante justice. “All humans are evil. This mistake of history must be reversed. Only then can the Bull Mongoni rise again.” Gunner believes there are worthy humans who will have a place in the new world.

1991 - The disagreement between Gunner and Zahn leads to a falling out and a physical showdown. Zahn vanishes from Gunner Star’s Lair of Doom.

1992 – Gunner Star goes dark.

1999 – Gunner Star re-emerges as he takes on a new protégé named Joe Fenton.

2003 – Gunner Star rescues a young thirteen year-old girl from a group of would-be rapists and begins to train her in the ways of the Bull Mongoni. That girl is Caitlin Star.

2004 – Joe Fenton publishes the book, “The Sacred Scrolls ofTarmok”. It is the first time knowledge of the Bull Mongoni has been made public. The book becomes an instant sensation and soon there is world-wide movement of Bull Mongoni disciples.

2005 - Gunner Star begins recruiting and training an elite band of warriors to build an underground army for the dark days of revolution that lay ahead.

2012 – A new recruit arrives at Gunner’s Lair and is to be trained by Caitlin. His name is Tyrone Fulton.

2012 – An anthropology professor named Lithgow and his grad student Lori travel to the Congo to verify an extraordinary event near a wildlife sanctuary—the arrival of a Bull Mongoni from the past named Tarmok.

2016 – The escalating culture wars result in the rigged election of a President Perkins and his new Moral Authority. Soon, any talk of an earth older than 6000 years is a felony and the bodies of all women of reproductive age are declared property of the state.

2018 – Perkins dissolves the Supreme Court and declares all of North America under the Moral Authority rule. Led by Caitlin Star and the Bull Mongoni, revolution begins!

Related and recommended 

Friday, February 7, 2014

'Falling Down' a modern masterwork

If ever there was a relevant time to rediscover a film, the time is now, and the film is 1993’s “Falling Down”. An insightful masterwork of well executed, stirring set pieces tied together by a haunting (and underrated) performance by Michael Douglas as Bill Foster. “Falling Down” is an unforgettable exercise in nihilistic angst—a meaty film that provokes strong polarizing reactions.
The movie holds up a mirror to the world around us. And not everyone will like what they see.
“Falling Down” tells the story of a distraught and recently displaced, divorced loner. The movie struck a chord in 1993, and the film has a strong cult following. Much like “Wall Street” (1987), this is movie where Michael Douglas is cast as a villain who ends up becoming the focal point of worship among fans—a tribute to the great actor’s ability to humanize complex, dark characters and to his fearless choices in the roles he takes on.
There are many elements that contribute to the movie’s powerhouse effect; the outstanding original script by Ebbe Roe Smith, the on-location cinematography of Andrzej Bartkowiak, Joel Schumacher’s uncompromising direction (hot off of the underrated “Flatliners” and hit tear-jerker “Dying Young”), and of course, the masterful performance of Michael Douglas.

But there is one other element so important to creating the movie’s unrelenting atmosphere of sweltering tension and helping us feel the emotional pain of a man without hope—James Newton Howards remarkable musical score. It is a soundtrack desperately sought after by fans of the film for over two decades and now at long last—thanks to Intrada—the commercial album has been officially released in a comprehensive limited edition that captures Howard’s score in all its brooding glory.
Howard ingeniously captures the tone of the film and takes us into the mind of Bill “D-Fens” Foster from the opening second of the shrewdly directed, claustrophobic, traffic jam in “Opening Titles”.

Amid the carefully constructed soundscape of jazzy urban dissonance, Howard introduces us to the main theme used for the character of Bill Foster, a brooding, deep brass and percussive march. It is a heroic march inverted by descending notes held longer—a technique used to create themes for villains by John Williams in the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” movies as well as by Howard Shore in the “Lord of the Rings” films.
It is the perfect way to score the character because D-Fens is the ultimate real life urban anti-hero–a culture warrior for the lonely and forgotten who have been cast aside in the new Tea Party led America where if you are not successful it is because you are a “loser” or a “taker”, and it is your own fault you are “not economically viable” and were laid off.
“Falling Down” is primarily a score of atmosphere, but do not let the use of that term fool you. Unlike the majority of today’s soundtracks where atmosphere is equated with linier, monotone, droning walls of sound with no rhyme or reason, Howard approaches “Falling Down’s” soundscape with a minimalistic approach and an acute sense of instrumentation choice. This is intelligent film scoring at its best, very reminiscent of the approach Howard shore used for all the classic David Cronenberg films.
A simmering sense of foreboding tension is created in minimalistic cues such as “First Phone Call”, “Second Phone Call” and “Hole in Shoe”. Just like the film, during the first act Howard’s score is a winding spring, a compressed emotional powder keg getting ready to burst and in “Drive By Shooting” it finally does as Howard unleashes his a cacophony of urban atonal action angst.
But make no mistake about it, this is not just an exercise in urban soundscapes and atonal minimalism. There is a lot of melodic beauty here, haunting passages, and even a few moments of profound sadness.
“Back Room” is a chilling suspense cue used to score one of the film’s most disturbing scenes. This is the music playing when Nick, the Nazi fascist freak played by Frederic Forrest, takes Bill Foster on a tour of his chamber of horrors before assaulting him. Next up is “Other Side of the Moon”, an absolutely monumental track that plays during the haunting scene where Bill calls his ex-wife right after he kills the racist Nazi. This is one of the great highlights of the soundtrack—a sad and spooky theme that serves as a precursor to Howard’s landmark score for “The Sixth Sense” six years later in 1999.
In “Under Construction” we get a bold, forceful statement of the main theme as Bill Foster emerges from the Army Surplus store “dressed as GI Joe” and armed with a rocket launcher—essentially in his super hero uniform (or anti-hero uniform)—as he solves traffic problems and takes on a loudmouth jerk on a golf course.
“Caretakers Family” begins with a statement of the main theme before morphing into a melancholy version of “Other Side of the Moon” with an added achingly sad motif as Bill talks about the family and the home he can never go back to. It is a deeply affecting scene and tribute to both Michael Douglas’s outstanding talent as an actor and James Newton Howard’s ability to bring out the emotions of a scene. It is one of those moments where everything comes together in film and creates movie magic.
“Till Death Do Us Part” starts out as an aching sentimental motif—the music that plays as Bill sits in his home watching an old family video—before transforming into an chaotic action cue as the police move in, flushing him out to set up the inevitable tragic finale at the Venice Pier in “Beth Kicks the Gun” and the mournful, jazzy “I’m the Bad Guy”.
This Intrada release is an absolute treasure trove for fans of the film or composer; a complete score presented in more or less sequential order with crisp, vibrant sound, extra cues and alternate tracks, beautifully packaged with insightful liner notes written by Douglas Fake. It is a must own score for fans of the movie or any soundtrack collector who appreciates intelligent film scoring by a talented composer at the top of his game.
One can hope that this album will lead to a commercial release of that other James Newton Howard masterwork from a Joel Schumacher film—“Flatliners” (1990).

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Finding yourself

A book review of "Divergent"

The most difficult obstacle to overcome is high expectations. “Divergent” is a wildly popular novel. It has garnered almost universal critical praise, has a rabid following at Goodreads, is a NY Times Bestseller, is about to become a blockbuster motion picture event, and follows close on the heels of another wildly popular book in the same sub-genre, written in a similar style, with a similar premise and main character. It is also in a genre and sub-genre I happen to love—science fiction, dystopian, action adventure.

Talk about having a mountain of expectations to live up to! 

I am happy to report that “Divergent” is a thoroughly gripping—and at times downright riveting—epic tale anchored by a strong narrative voice and a great main character. Author Veronica Roth writes with a supreme confidence of a veteran storyteller as she draws us into the world of a dystopian Chicago by taking us into the mind of Tris as she approaches her sixteenth birthday—the day when one must choose their faction. Factions are isolated cultures, each with their own very specific code of conduct and lifestyle. What makes Tris special is she does not really fit neatly into any one of these factions—she is a “divergent”—someone who cannot be programmed and controlled so easily—someone who can think and react independently. Someone who is dangerous to the powers to be—sinister characters who are making corrupt plans where control means everything.

Post-apocalyptic societies set up in separate classes and divisions have been a staple of dystopian science fiction since H.G. Wells. But the author does a nice job in creating the factions in the book, making each one unique and believable—especially “The Dauntless”, the faction Tris joins. The Dauntless are essentially a society of daredevils and this makes for some suspenseful and exciting sequences as Tris undergoes her training.

This is a meaty novel, in terms of content, as well as length. But it reads fast. Very fast. Only at one point did the pacing slack a bit when some of the training scenes became repetitive about three quarters into the book. But then—wow—stuff starts to happen and happen and happen fast. The final seventy-five pages are absolutely riveting, jam-packed with revelations and colorful action that never lets up until the exhilarating finale.

Does “Divergent live up to the hype? Oh you bet it does! This is a five star read sure to be enjoyed by anyone who likes young adult dystopia, science fiction, or action adventure of any kind.

It goes without saying that anyone who likes this book will also want to read “The Hunger Games”, and probably has. But there are also some classic science fiction dystopia books “Divergent” fans may want to check out including Robert Silverberg’s “The World Inside”, Adlous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, David Brin’s “The Postman”, and “Logan’s Run” by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson.